Doyel: It's Fisher, not Kobe
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Rather than waste your time by going point-by-point through the Magic's catastrophic meltdown in Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night, we'll start with something else.
We'll start with the one mistake that had the least to do with the outcome of this game -- a 99-91 overtime victory by the Lakers, giving them a commanding 3-1 series lead -- because it could, and should have the most to do with the outcome of the next game.
A team can overcome 15 missed free throws, 17 turnovers, a blown 12-point lead at home, Dwight Howard morphing into Nick Anderson at the free-throw line and the inability to defend or run an inbounds play at the most crucial point in the game. It would be hard, but the Magic could recover from all those things and win Game 5, because that is what they do. Since proving their mettle by taking down the defending champion Celtics, the Magic have been the most resilient team this postseason. Hats off to them for that.
But what they wouldn't be able to overcome is a decision that I believe should be coming from the NBA office on Friday. When Stu Jackson and his admirals look at the replay of Mickael Pietrus' vicious, dangerous foul on Pau Gasol with 3.4 seconds left in overtime Thursday night, I believe he will have no choice but to suspend Pietrus for Game 5.
For a team that is coming off a crippling loss -- the kind that breaks your will -- losing Pietrus would be devastating. He has become a key shot-maker and the closest thing the Magic have to a Kobe stopper. It would be the knockout blow.
But that's just too bad. Rules are rules.
"I just tried to finish the play and finish hard and somebody kind of punched me from behind," Gasol said. "To be honest, it wasn't a push; it was more of a punch. They were frustrated. I understand that, because it's hard to lose on your home floor and probably lose opportunities and chances to win this Final. But at the same time, you've got to be careful. You can't play too dirty or try to hurt somebody because that's punishable."
In addition to all their self-inflicted wounds, the Magic will spend the next two days lamenting some calls that didn't go their way. They'll point to Kobe Bryant's elbow connecting with Jameer Nelson's jaw on a double-team that led to Derek Fisher's 3-pointer, making it 94-91 with 31.3 seconds left in OT. They'll curse out loud when they see the replay that showed Trevor Ariza stepping out of bounds when he gathered in an offensive rebound leading to the aforementioned 3-pointer. But those are just calls, and sometimes the refs miss them.
|Mickael Pietrus (left) might be forced to miss Game 5 if his flagrant foul is upgraded. (AP)|
Pietrus was given a flagrant foul-penalty one by the referees, and each player received a technical. I was surprised to learn after the game, however, that the initial impression of league officials was that the foul will stand as called. But with the benefit of a more extensive replay review, several factors will jump out to Jackson and his staff and make it difficult for them not to upgrade it to a flagrant-two -- and perhaps, in my opinion, even suspend Pietrus for a game. That's what I think should happen.
The Lakers had opened a 96-91 lead on a dunk by Gasol with 21.6 seconds left in overtime, a gaping hole in Orlando's hopes of getting back into this series. Just as at the end of regulation, the Magic had trouble getting the ball inbounds on the previous possession and didn't get the shot they wanted. Hedo Turkoglu's missed jumper was tapped out by Rashard Lewis, but it was tapped out too far -- all the way to halfcourt.
After another miss by Turkoglu on the next possession, Fisher got the rebound and fed Gasol for another runout. It was almost the same play, except this time, Pietrus chased Gasol down and did something that was mindless. As Gasol was in the air finishing the dunk, Pietrus lunged for him, wound up with both arms, and swung at his back -- connecting with enough force to knock Gasol awkwardly off the rim. Pietrus isn't a dirty player -- he didn't have a single flagrant foul or technical all season -- but it was a dirty play. More to the point, it clearly fit the definition for a flagrant-two, which is "unnecessary and excessive contact."
In the Lakers locker room, Gasol was asked if he thought Pietrus was trying to hurt him.
"Well, I don't think he was trying to stop me from making a layup or a dunk, because I already was up there," Gasol said. "He had no chance to play the ball. I guess that's why they called a flagrant. I understand they were frustrated. The game got away from them when they had a pretty good lead in the game. It's just the way it happens sometimes."
Jackson himself couldn't have explained it any better: 1) It was unnecessary and excessive; 2) Pietrus didn't have a play on the ball; 3) Pietrus wound up to deliver extra force, one of many criteria league officials consider when reviewing flagrants; and 4) Gasol was vulnerable to injury when Pietrus hit him. While Pietrus contended he struck Gasol with open hands, the replay appeared to show that he used fists, but the league will have more angles available to verify Gasol's contention that he was punched.
Another factor the league considers is whether a confrontation ensued. One most certainly did, during which Gasol said "a couple of things that I don't care to repeat on camera."
When Gasol was asked in which language -- he's Spanish and Pietrus is French -- Gasol said, "I said it in English to make sure he understood it. If I would've known in French, I would've said it in French. ... I was like, 'What's wrong with you?' It was totally uncalled for and not necessary. That's more or less the message that I was trying to get across to him: 'At that point in the game, why?' " As for Pietrus, one of the truly delightful players in the league, he offered a vigorous defense.
I asked Pietrus if his unblemished track record should be considered -- not just what he did on this play.
"I think I never got a technical foul in my entire career, and that's how sometimes it goes," Pietrus said. "So hopefully they're going to let me get away with [it] and compete in Game 5. That's what we need. We need everybody."
It would be a shame if the Magic lost their most consistent shooting guard -- the one who should be starting in this series, if you ask me -- when facing elimination on their home floor. But it would be no more egregious than Orlando's other mistakes: the missed free throws, the turnovers, the offensive breakdowns in crunch time.
Pietrus was involved in another crucial moment, for which I don't blame him one bit. After Fisher had drilled his first of two back-breaking 3-pointers off an inbounds play with 10.8 seconds left in regulation, the Magic couldn't get the ball swung to Lewis for the kind of open look that he knocked down twice at the end of games in the Cleveland series. Instead, the play bogged down after Turkoglu inbounded the ball to Pietrus, who missed an open Lewis in the corner and missed a 20-footer, too. Overtime.
Sometimes you make the shot and sometimes you don't. But Pietrus made a mistake in the way he attacked Gasol out of frustration at the end of overtime, and you don't get mistakes like that back. As Gasol said, it's punishable, and Pietrus should be punished.
Does that mean the Magic are done? They might be anyway, but that shouldn't factor into the decision at all. It's been a thrilling, and sometimes rocky postseason for the NBA, which is riding as high as it's been since Michael Jordan retired -- despite being only two seasons removed from an officiating scandal that threatened to bring it to its knees.
The last thing the league wants now is a controversy heading into two off days before what could be the clinching game in the Finals. But you can't control when controversy comes knocking. You only have to do what's right when it does.